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Wednesday, May 26, 2004

 

A Nice-Jewish-Boy Yankee In King Faisel's Court

I joined GE in Manhattan in 1975 as a project engineer in the International Projects Department (IPD.) IPD's mission in life was to design and build turnkey powerplants overseas, the idea being that in order to sell GE equipment, you often had to provide the whole ball of wax - site preparation, construction, non-GE equipment, and installation. As IPD had a very small engineering staff, we contracted out the detailed design work to other parts of GE or even to outside companies. That's where the project engineer came in; my job was to ride herd on whatever engineering firm we hired for a given project.

With typical big-company logic, GE took this Nice Jewish Boy and put me on a succession of projects for Saudi Arabia. All together, I worked on four separate projects between 1977 and 1981, adding 1.4 gigawatts of electrical production to electrical grids of Jeddah, Riyadh, and Mecca.

Being an IPD Project Engineer was a headquarters job, but there was a lot of traveling involved. Most was to our engineering consultants in Schenectady and Boston. But the Saudi's own consultants were in Frankfurt and Zurich, and our construction contractor was in Milan, so I also made a lot of trips to Europe. Finally, I traveled to the jobsites for a week or two at critical times in each project, making a total of seven trips to Saudi Arabia.

As an idealistic young engineer, I really thought I was doing something good and noble by working on these jobs - bringing the benefits of electricity to Saudi Arabia, I thought, would lift the standard of living there and ultimately be a force for peace in the region.

Getting to Saudi Arabia was (and still is) no easy task. You had to get a visa, which was valid for a maximum stay of one month and expired three months after issue. To get your visa, you had to be invited by a Saudi national for some business purpose (no tourism, please!) Finally, you had to submit proof of religion.

Proof of religion, huh? You know, a baptismal certificate, letter from your minister, that sort of thing... in other words, we don't want no steeenkeeeng Jews coming into our country!

My boss and I decided to try getting me a visa anyway, and we determined to go after it honestly. But what the heck did I have hanging around to prove that I was a Jew? I finally found a copy of my enlistement record in the U.S. Army Reserves - there was an optional space to fill in your religion. So I took a big black marker, circled the "Jewish" that had been typed on the form, and submitted it as my proof of religion.
First Trip to Saudi Arabia - 1977
To our amazement, I got the visa! I went on my first trip to Saudi Arabia in late February 1977 in the company of my project manager and his assistant plus three engineers from Schenectady. In the photo here, I'm standing at our job site in Jeddah between my engineer friends Cliff at left and Chuck at right.



By the way, as we arrived at the Jeddah airport on that first visit, and as I waited in line to go through immigration and customs, I got really nervous. What would they do when they read Yahood ("Jew") in my visa? As the very long line snaked towards the several officials, my heart started pounding and I began to sweat. With about 10 people ahead of me, I noticed something very strange... as each person handed the inspector his immunization record and passport, he would glance at it, nod, and say "OK!". But sometimes, he would hold the documents upside-down... he couldn't read!

What a relief! I calmed down and soon found myself and my traveling companions outside the airport and on the way to our hotel.

That first trip to Saudi Arabia was an eye-opener. Everything looked as if it were in the process of being torn down or built up. Nothing at all looked finished. Good thing they don't allow tourism - there was nothing at all of any touristic interest! Come to think of it, this makes sense, as until recently, the whole inhospitable country had supported only a small nomadic population, and there wasn't even a country there until 1932.
Steve and Friends - Jeddah 1978
I saw a lot of wealth there, but amazingly in such a rich country, a lot of poverty as well. Saudi citizens had no money problems, but imported workers, especially Yemenis, lived very poorly. At that time, "security", as in "we need some security for the jobsite/apartment complex/store/etc," meant a Yemeni with a stick and a loud voice. The Yemenis did all the lowliest and dirtiest work in the kingdom. Their living quarters often consisted of a castoff cardboard shipping carton from a large appliance.

In this photo, you can see me with two of the Yemeni "guards" at our Jeddah jobsite. The shack in the background is the lunch and snack shop - you could buy a pretty good schwarma for 1 Riyal (about 30 cents in 1977.) The young fellow at right was our resident technical advisor, George Moses.

On to Mecca ...


I worked on two projects for Jeddah - the original power plant with four gas turbine generators, and the extention, which added four more. The next project I was assigned to was for Mecca Electric Company. This involved expanding the existing Mecca power station by 200 MW, a substantial increase. I was actually thrilled to be involved with this work, as the Mecca station was critical to the Kingdom's committment to the yearly Hadj, or pilgrimage to Mecca.

Mecca at that time had a population of a few hundred thousand - large in Saudi terms but not really a big city. But, during the time of the hadj each year, its population swells to several million. All these people need services, hotel rooms, air conditions ... and that means electricity.

So I felt that I was doing my small part of an endeavor that would enable millions of faithful Moslems fulfill the fifth of their Five Pillars of Faith, a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lifetime.

Let's See - Japanese, Korean ... How Come No Hebrew?


No Entry for Non-Moslems!
Of course, I couldn't actually go into Mecca. Only Moslems are allowed in this holy city. Fortunately, the power station was on the outskirts of Mecca, a few miles South of the city. Mecca itself sits in a low valley surrounded by hills, so I couldn't see Mecca from the plant.

This last photo shows the "No Entry for Non-Moslems" sign on the road to Mecca - this one was just across the road from the plant.

One funny thing I remember about this restriction is that our staff was easily able to subvert it. We had some wonderful fellows from Eritrea (formerly part of Ethiopia.) They were amiable, intelligent, and very capable... and Coptic Christian. Actually, they put me to shame, as they all spoke, at the very least, Amharic, Eritrean, English, Italian, and Arabic. So if we needed some supplies from Mecca (Jeddah was 60 km to the South,) one of the Eritreans would drive into town. Since they spoke Arabic and could quote a few lines from the Koran, they had no problems.

Well, this Mecca power plant extention was a success, and the Hadjiis didn't lack for electricity over the next few years.

I don't regret working on the Mecca project, as it directly supported a religious purpose, but to say that I'm disappointed at the behavior of the Saudis in the intervening twenty-five years is an understatement.

How naive I was! I thought that the Saudis, with their their commercial orientation, would be the first in the Arab world to make peace with Israel. As it turned out, they have been responsible for funding terrorist organizations and for exporting their radical brand of Islam, to the detriment of regional and world security. Instead of being agents for peace, they actually opposed it at critical junctures, such as the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace accord and the 2000 Camp David talks. They are supposed to be our friend and ally, but they are in fact a sometimes-useful enemy of everything we are and stand for.

More Saudi adventures another time. For now, shalom!

Comments:
I am a Saudi who studied once in the States. Never once did I make fun of the country or the people, eventhough I met some who made fun of my country and my language. I know that some of the Americans hated colored people. Did I go to their places and take pictures with hidden signs of my religion and country? No, I was above that! As there were people who hated us there were people who were nice and hospitable. Jeddah does have beautiful historical sites. Forigners visit them daily. In addition there is Mada en Saleh the city built in the rocks with beatiful art work. The rocks on the ground are taken by some of the visitors and sent to Singapor to be made into diamonds. They are called Saudi Diamonds. There is also a dead volcano near Mecca which is also visited by tourists or forigners. Yemenis although many did the lowest work, many became among the richest families in Saudi Arabia. Just take a look at all the last names of the rich people and you'll get the picture! They started low but moved up to the top! Poverty yes we do have, but go a few blocks from the white house and check the poverty there. Are you not the richest country of the world? As for torrerisim, doesn't your country supply a country which kills children and pull people out of the houses to give it to the ones who came recently to the land? Don't they pull down olive trees which took hundreds of years to grow just to make room for a wall! Do not mix between giving money to suffering people to live, go to school and get health care and giving money to torrerists! From the way you spoke about and acted in our country, it seems you had preintentions and certainly not noble ones. You did not even mention meeting one Saudi family or eating at their place! We are generous and kind people just as there are geneous and kind people in States. As for non Muslims not allowed into Mecca is just as the case of some of your scared places where non Jews are not allowed to enter! You were issued the visa, how did you react to it is shameful.
 
It seems an American trait that the assumption is that if your a "Friend" you must agree with all that I say or do! Why? I would have thought a "Good" friend would tell you when your wrong and, a "Good" friend would have the courtesy to listen. It would seem that some only want friends that agree with them, in the UK we call them "Yes Men". They earn very little respect.
I worked in Saudi for ten years and in all that time only exprienced one problem and that involved the allegation of speeding on "Christian Bypass". The sign you highlight says "Muslims Only" I seem to remember (Not a million years ago) signs in the States saying "No Blacks". Why does the old adage about glass houses and throwing stones come to mind?
 
The sign you highlight says "Muslims Only" I seem to remember (Not a million years ago) signs in the States saying "No Blacks". Why does the old adage about glass houses and throwing stones come to mind?

Uh, maybe because you're a fucking idiot? You need to reach back half a decade for criticism? Why not bring up the crusades while you're at it?

The sign he photographed is up *now*.

And what are you inferring in your comment about problems on a "Christian Bypass"? Are Christians hassling people in Saudi Arabia? Pull your head out of your ass.
 
A Jew and an Arab bitching at each other. How unique!

Can't we all just get along?

Ken...not anonymous
 
People flout the Meccan restrictions all the time; I've heard tell of Catholic priests travelling to Mecca incognito to celebrate Mass.
 
Hi Mr. Steve Rosenbach,
first of all i want to thank you very much about what you did to help my country"Saudi Arabia" and my people to live a good life.you know that we are not these kind of people who neglects person who do a favor to us "Arab nature". i really don't know what situation you are at when you write this article.you are in my dad age and i have to respect you "this is part of my religion and believes and what my dad learn me" but it is shame on you to say these about my country that open its arms to get your life experience as a young engineer that if you stayed here in US you will never ever forward step in your life. i'm a Saudi and a Muslim and i do not have any problem with jewish people who stand with truth and does not support killing anicint people. what you said about the visa problem to Saudi Arabia you have to look to what your country Embassy do to give the Saudis visas, at least you wait for more than one month. i really appreciate my experience about studying in the US and meeting really good American people.i really want thank you again and i wish you a successful life..
 
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